Serenity

These days, it has become increasingly harder to find places of solitude. Places where you experience true serenity. For those of us who have learned to hear the call of the wild, we have the innate ability to find these places where others would not. I found myself looking for that serenity last year. During a summer camp trip I had a simple goal. A goal to find peace and tackle one of my favorite fish on the fly.

The smallmouth bass is a simple and elegant fish. A favorite of sportsmen, its fighting spirit and beautiful colors are rivaled by few other species. I had caught smallmouth on the fly, but I had committed what some would consider sacrilege. I had used live bait to catch smallmouth on a fly rod. I wasn’t concerned with the tradition of the fly, but the feeling of the fight. On this trip, I was determined to put the past behind me. I snuck away from the camp and headed to the river.

In all honesty, I had no idea what I was doing. I had a fly that I had tied, but it was new to me. I hadn’t caught a single fish on this fly. Rigging up, I did my best to rely on past knowledge. I knew where the fish used to be. I had caught twenty-five fish in this same stretch of river, some over seventeen inches. I knew that I could get the fly to the fish, high banks and trees lead to conducive casting. I knew what smallmouth ate. My fly was patterned after a crawfish, a brown cone head Wooly Bugger without a marabou tail. What I did not know, was how to fish this fly. I did not know how to present to these fish.

Above all the uncertainty I had confidence. I was prepared to stand in that river for the foreseeable future. The sun was headed down, but the water felt good. It felt right. As in all things new , I understood that it would take time. After the first half hour, the doubt began to set in. Not the doubt of the fish being there, but the doubt in my technique. I was doing exactly what I thought was best. I was casting upstream at a forty five degree angle, and letting the fly dead drift down stream to a soft swing on the tail end. I thought I had a surefire method. This was the exact method that I was using with a live minnow. After some thought, I wasn’t throwing a minnow pattern. I was throwing a crayfish, and crayfish don’t float through the water. They are spastic swimmers, jerks and erratic motion the name of the game. So I changed tactics. I cast upstream, almost parallel to the current, and I began stripping the fly. Fast. Hard. Like a fleeing crayfish. The water was less than two feet deep. The current was quick. The first cast, about the 3rd strip, my line hit a brick wall. A wall that moved. Serenity. A wave of peace washed over me. In less than an hour, my goal was met. While fighting a fish in strong current, I was more relaxed than a deep sleep. I soon landed the first smallmouth on the fly. I waded back to shore, sandpaper like teeth in my thumb with a soft vise grip. At the shore line, the camera came out. The fish backlit by a flowing river. The fly highlighted in the corner of the mouth and my fiberglass fly rod translucent in the sunset. It was picture perfect, and yet no photo will ever come close enough.

My feet mindlessly carried me back into the streams center. The smile on my face sure not to fade. In my mind, at that moment, I could have cast the rest of the night and been content with one fish. To my joy, within five minutes I had fish number two on the rod, and fish number three followed soon after. Every fish after the first was a bonus, and the fights became more surreal. I found myself focused on the subtle headshakes of the bass, the long runs of desperation as the fish fought to escape.

The final fish of the day was a surprise. It wasn’t a smallmouth bass. It wasn’t a spotted or largemouth either. It was something I had never caught. It was later identified by a good friend as a creek chub. It wasn’t expected, but it was certainly appreciated. I went to my hammock that night quite happy. I had not only caught a smallmouth bass on a fly rod, but I had caught 3 smallmouth bass on a fly that I had hand-tied. Tomorrow held more fish, I had caught them before. I knew the fallen tree like the back of my hand. In fact, I had hung a hammock in that fallen tree over the river. Sleep came easy, and I could only hope that the fish were as hungry as I was, chasing serenity.

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The Neko Rig

In the old days, fishing was simple. A long stick, a braided line, and a hook with live bait. Your line was probably made from horse hair, your hook an old re-purposed nail or screw, and your bait was whatever you dug up on the river bank. People caught fish, people ate the fish, and that was basically it.

Sure it was fun, and there were some monsters caught. Over time, people began to see fishing as a hobby and sport, more than a method of food gathering. Thus, technology infiltrated a simple past time, just like it seems to do with everything these days.

First, reels and rods evolved, and the line with them. The baits became plastic and artificial, and people now develop baits and hooks designed to catch nothing but big fish.

Of course, there is no magic bait. Nothing of this world can guarantee that you’ll never catch a quarter pound squeaker of a bass again, but there are some baits to try that might increase your odd. Thanks to outlets such as YouTube, more and more people are being introduced to fishing, and learning new techniques.

While not a new technique, the drop-shot has become wildly popular in the past few years. It’s simple design, finesse action, and consistent fish catching has placed it center of the spotlight for anybody targeting pressured fish. Nothing is perfect though, and there can be a few hangups in the rigging. Literally.

While super effective, when you add a second line to your basic reel-line-bait setup,

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there’s sure to be some crossover. In the case of the drop-shot, the crossover is literally a cross over, and lines get tangled almost every hook set. The lines twist as they are being worked through the water columns, and eventually you have to spend precious time managing your line. VMC has created a hook recently designed to ease your drop shot experience. Thanks to the 360 degree wire-post, the line twist caused by similar hooks is eliminated, and the Neko Hook design allows for better hook sets with bigger baits, helping you catch more fish. If you’re looking for the hook and setup for more big fish, the Spin-Shot Neko is the way to go.

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While most people are focused on open water finesse, we all know that the biggest, baddest fish live in heavy cover. They lurk in the shadows, covered in weeds and grass so thick that most anglers wouldn’t think of dropping a finesse rig into their midst. Luckily, VMC just dropped another new hook. Enter the Weedless Neko.

While weedless hooks are nothing new, VMC decided it was time the Neko hook finally got the weedless treatment it deserved. The ability to throw a Neko style hook, a finesse rig, into the thickest of cover is a game changer. You can sit on the water and catch average fish all day. Option two, move towards cover and target fish that haven’t seen the light of day in years.

 

 

If you are interested in either hook, they can both be found on Rapala’s website under the VMC tab, or by following the links in this article. Just click on the name of the hooks. If you fish big water and lakes, and you haven’t at least attempted a finesse drop-shot rig, you need to quit messing around and go catch some fish you want to tell stories about.

Ray Eye’s Media Camp: The Hunt

The Hunt.

The piece everybody wants to hear about.

The first morning, Friday Tim and I elected to sit in a blind.

With archery hunting, it’s hard enough to get in close to a turkey. Add in the action of drawing a bow, and the eyes of a turkey, a blind is the best option.

We got to the field just a bit late, but not too late to ruin the hunt. We made the hike up the hill, to where Tim had killed his monster buck two years prior. It was an opened glade burned for new growth, and we decided to cut into the woods to start calling. We walked up and down the same hill twice, before deciding on a place to settle in. We had heard some birds gobble on the opposite ridge, and we settled in to start calling.

Over the morning, we heard around 8 different gobblers. We also heard 2 shots close by, and we thought that our party had killed. We spent the whole morning full of hope and optimism, thinking that our hunting camp was going to have killed 3 birds instead of just the one from the day before. We heard birds until mid-morning, around 9:30 when they stopped talking.

We continued to call, but we never saw a single feather of a bird.

We broke down the set up, planning for the next day. We decided to run-and-gun, or rather run-and-bow.

Getting to bed later than expected, and kept awake by a snoring bear, the morning came too early. It was a good thing that we had decided to move towards the birds that day, I’m sure I would have fallen asleep in a blind.

We started off the day talking with Chance, Ryan and Bill, the other group hunting the same plot. We decided to stick to the left of the road, they to the right. We headed up the hill to where we started the day before, and began to listen for gobbles brought on by the hooting owls of the night.

The first sounds came from the opposite ridge, on the right side of the road.

Crap.

We listened closely as we heard six or more birds gobbling, all on the right side of the roda, the other groups territory.

It wasn’t until close to 6am, daylight, that we heard the first bird on our side. Game on.

We stalked closer, closing the distance to what seemed like less than one hundred yards. We made a quick set of the decoys, and started calling. The bird on the roost responded, and we were sure that we had him on a string.

Unfortunately, that string lead straight away from us, and he followed it straight away.

We decided to make a move. Up and over the fence, and to the top of the ridge we went. The bird was on top, and with any luck he was moving down the ridge to the area we travelled. We closed the distance again to one hundred yards or less, and again he backed away and over the ridge.

At that point, we stopped for a break. Grabbing a snack bar and a couple minutes of rest, we hiked back downhill and to where we started the day. As we neared the other side, we called again, and the bird we had just left responded. Round 2. Fight!

We made a move towards the bird, but stopped short for another treasure of spring. As we moved closer, the bird move away again, and this time for good. We didn’t leave empty handed, we found a delicacy. 20180421_090626.jpg

The Morel mushroom has long been the prize of many turkey hunters, and we quickly found 8 in a small area. At least we wouldn’t leave the woods hungry.

We then set out back for the Jeep. The plan was to grab a blind, set up for the afternoon and for tomorrow’s hunt, forecasting heavy rain. While we set up the blind, the woods came to life and the hollows thundered with the gobbles of big toms. Back on the run.

We made a quick move to the next ridge over, and called. Gobble.

Moved again. Gobble.

Moved three, four, and five times, each more gobbling. From more than one gobbler.

Finally, we closed the distance. In what felt like a Colorado pine elk stalk, we made our stand in a grove of evergreens, and brought the birds in.

It wasn’t long before we looked through the woods, and Tim saw birds.

Still as stone, we called softly. Tim’s hands busy on the bow, I gave quick clucks and yelps on the mouth call. The birds closed the distance. Only two of the four had made the commitment, but it was all coming together.

Seventy.

Sixty.

Fifty.

Then, gone. The lead bird erupted in a series of puts, clucks, and general alarm sounds.

I called back as quickly as I could. Quick cuts and yelps and harsh calls to try and convince him that he hadn’t seen anything, that I was a turkey, and he wasn’t dinner. To no avail. They slowed down, continued to run the other way.

The next day, was a nap day. The rain started right after daybreak, and only two birds were vocal. Short of an unlucky bird walking through the wrong place, at the wrong time, we called it quits early for the first time. The next, and final day was not much more eventful. We walked the ridges, made the calls, heard the birds, and never saw a tom. We stumbled upon two birds walking away, but both were hens, nothing to do with our hunt in Missouri.

And thus, our trip ended. A close encounter at 50 or so yards was the highlight of the hunt. The highlights of the trip, however, came in the camaraderie and friendships made, and the storys to be told later. Chance and Joe run a stellar operation, and it will only continue to get better as more hunters work their way through the rugged Ozark hills and learn to experience a true, honest Missouri turkey hunt.

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Ray Eye’s Media Camp: Devil’s Backbone

When you watch a hunting show, there are a couple of things you expect.

A kill. Great calling and response. Wisdom and knowledge of animals that don’t seem to be wise themselves.

Hunting, in reality is much harder. There are animals that will never respond to a call, and terrain that doesn’t allow for a shot longer than 20 yards.

If you want a real hunt, where success is never guaranteed, then I know the place for you.

Devil’s Backbone Wilderness Outfitters was started in 1987, by Joe Hollingshad. Offering a blast into the past, Joe lead wilderness trips on mule drawn wagons in the heart of Mark Twain Forest land, known as the Devil’s Backbone. Taking trips well beyond what a normal hunt would offer, guests would see sights that hadn’t been seen by other hunters in years. Specializing in turkey hunts, birds over 25lbs were normal, and as a client you could expect to hear 20 birds a day on the roost.

All of this, and the hunting was never easy.

Wary Eastern turkey have long been the bane of hunters existence, and there were no fields of food plots with blinds lining the woods. You hiked, you called, and hoped that at the end of the day, you would catch a tiny glance of a big, bold gobbler.

Fast forward to today. The birds are still wary, and you still have to work for every kill. The only difference is that the optics are better, the turkey loads reach out beyond 50 yards, and the guns hold more than the muzzle-loading guns of the old hunts.

Such is Devil’s Backbone Wilderness Outfitters. Now offering 1500 acres of privately managed hunting land, and management practices in place for both deer and turkey, the hunting has only gotten better, and will only continue to do so.

The turkey hunting is challenging to say the least. Birds are decoy shy, and you better be an expert with a call to coax the old toms out of their holes. Luckily for us mortals, Chance and Joe are experts with box, slate, and diaphragm calls. Specializing in the run-and-gun style, you’re in for a real treat. The greatest reward is the bird after a hard days work.

While the turkey rival any other Eastern turkey, the deer are something to note. Old, mature deer aren’t like the monsters of the north. A trophy deer is much harder to find in the south of Missouri, and to find a deer north of one hundred eighty inches is almost unheard of. To find a deer of the same size down south, you need a fence. A really big fence.

Take this deer for example. It’s a nineteen pointed bruiser, full bodied and thick massed. He scored just shy of one hundred sixty inches.

That deer may have had two more years of growth on him. Or not. In the Southeast of Missouri, people hunt for meat. Quality deer management is almost unheard of, and to shoot deer worthy of the Boone and Crockett books is just a pipe dream. The other downside to passing big deer in that part of the country? You may never see them again.

Deer in the area have an absolute advantage. There are thousand and thousands of acres of land, and the thickets are so rough that the best hunting dog in the world may still get caught. You may only have one chance at a deer of a lifetime, and you better take it.

At Devil’s Backbone Outfitters, they’re doing everything they can to concentrate the deer herd into the 1500 acres that they manage, and give hunters every opportunity to harvest the deer they have dreamed of. They have permanent stands set up for rifle hunts that they use year in and year out, that have been known to produce quality bucks. For archery hunters, the trail cameras set up around the farm promise to give a picture of the movement of deer, and give hunters the best chance to get in tight to the deer they are after.

In both situations, this hunt is not for somebody who needs their hand held. If you do, they’ll be sure to accommodate you, and put you where you need to be. If you want to harvest the best the farm has to offer, be prepared to learn how to really hunt the Ozarks.

If you need a turkey hunt, or a deer hunt. This is the place to go. Joe and his son Chance are sure to put you on game, and above all else treat you like family. You’ll be put up in some of the finest accommodations that the area has to offer, and if you’re bringing the family, there is plenty of opportunity for fun outside of the hunting. The White river is nearby, and is rated as one of the best trout rivers in the country.

For any information regarding Devils Backbone Wilderness Outfitters, they can be reached in many different ways. If you’d like to experience the hunt of a lifetime, and memories you’ll never forget, drop them a message today. Email,Facebook, and phone number, all messages will be returned sooner than you think. Be on the lookout for a commercial coming soon this summer!

Ray Eye’s Media Camp: The Sponsors

As a hunter, trips can get expensive.

First, you have your weapon. The weapon can be borrowed, but if you plan on hunting any longer than the first year, you might as well buy it. A gun can run you anywhere from two hundred all the way up to the high thousands. A bow starts at about the same price, but most full rigs don’t break the two thousand mark. Then you have ammunition, clothing, calls, blinds, snacks, backpacks, gas for the car, tags, licences, guide fees, and time.

Of all of these, time is the only one that somebody else cannot provide for you. It is finite, and every man and woman has a bank that eventually runs out of reserves.

In a media camp though, almost all of the other objects are provided. Provided you have the gas to get down there, there are a range of companies who want their product out there, and want it to be exposed by professionals.

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Starting with the main culprits, Ray, Chance, and Joe were the ones responsible for bringing us all together.

We’ll cover Chance and Joe later, in a piece dedicated to Devil’s Backbone.

On the first night of camp, Friday, Ray gathered us together for a sponsors dinner, and a mini movie night that he had put together himself.

Among the title sponsors, we had a couple of visitors for the night.

The first was Johnny Graham, executive chef for the Governor’s Mansion and owner of Revel Catering in Jefferson City, Missouri. Johnny was the designer of the meal for the Governor’s Youth Turkey hunt put on by the Conservation Federation of Missouri. He and his wife made for great company, and from conversations after dinner it sounds like we’ll be doing some bowfishing this summer in Saint Louis.

The second guest of the night was Michelle and Wayne Johnson of Dove Creek Wagyu Cattle Company, and their daughter Lacy. While I was most hopeful to try their beef, it wasn’t in the cards. They were, however, kind enough to bring us more than a few bags of jerky. Let me tell you, this jerky was good. You could call me a jerky snob, and the name of this jerky doesn’t lie. I spent the whole night trying to pick it apart, trying to find a single thing wrong with it.

I can’t.

Even down to the little bit of grease left on your fingers, it tastes amazing. Spicy enough to remind you that it’s not for wimps, and so tender that it melts in your mouth. If you find bell peppers and black pepper too spicy for you, don’t eat this jerky. If you are a true, red-blooded meat eater, find this jerky, and eat it. You can find it online through the link given above, or at both Springfield, MO farmers markets.

Finally, the people that made all of this camp possible.

Mossberg shotguns provided all of the guns for this event, including the 930 Turkey, and the 835 with the Bullseye Sight system. While my hunter Tim used his PSE Bow, every gun provided was top quality, and cycles like a dream.

Coupled with the Mossberg shotguns, were Indian Creek Shooting Systems chokes. No other company has collected as many still-target records for pellets in the kill zone, and I can’t see using any other chokes for my turkey guns.

Z-Max provided all of our gun cleaning supplies for the event, their lube and bore cleaner works unlike any other. The formula absorbs into the metal, to condition the metal and prevent the oil from solidifying and gumming up the works.

Thomas Coffee provided the coffee for this weekend’s hunts. While I’m not a coffee drinker, everybody who spoke of it spoke very highly, and I’m sure to get a report on the roast when my fiance makes some here at home.

Conservation Federation of Missouri was a huge supporter of our turkey camp, and without the work they do for the progression and preservation of our hunting heritage in Missouri, I’m not sure what the future would hold.

Midwest Outdoors has been the premier resource for everything fishing, hunting and outdoors for over 30 years on television, and over 50 years in existence. Mark Strand, editor for Midwest Outdoors joined us in camp this weekend and ran camera during Bill Coopers hunt. The footage was said to be great, and I look forward to seeing it air on the Midwest Outdoors television show sometime next season!

Tony Caggiano with World Slam Adventures also played a big part in media camp. Unable to attend this year, he books quality hunts world wide, specializing in turkey all around the globe. If  you’re looking to complete the turkey grand slam, or even the world slam, give Tony a call and he’s sure to fill out your trophy room.

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The Hook’s Custom calls provided this weekend were amazing. The closest encounter we had this weekend was all thanks to a Hook’s Custom glass call, and a diaphragm call to bring the bird the last 20 yards.

Finally, Ray Eye can be heard every week here in the Saint Louis area on 590 the fan, an AM station that airs Eye on the Outdoors, Ray’s long running and highly comical show. Ray has been hunting turkey longer than I have been alive, in more places than I could ever dream of. He’s played an intergral part in more people’s turkey hunting success than the guns they own. From calling and roosting tips, to how to hunt the different sub-species of bird, Ray knows his turkeys.

 

Ray Eye’s Media Camp: Part 1

When I started this website, I set a few goals. What they are is not important, but one of the major goals was to get invites to media camps. Hunting and fishing incredible places, then coming back home to write about the trip and the companies who made it possible.

Spring turkey season has opened here in Missouri, and a couple of months back I sent a message to Tim Kjellesvik, The Thinking Woodsman. I wanted to know where and when he would need me to film turkey hunts this upcoming season. He mentioned that he had a couple of invites to turkey camps, and that he wasn’t totally sure yet.

I never expected to get the invite to one.

Fast forward to March, and Tim says he would like me to run camera for him at Devil’s Backbone Wilderness Outfitters, for Ray Eye‘s media camp. For those of you who don’t know Ray Eye, you might want to learn if you want to kill turkeys. To be able to hunt and share a camp with one of the longest running, most knowledgeable turkey hunters in the world was a huge honor, and of course I didn’t hesitate.

Back to the present, we drove down Thursday to meet up with the camp. We were staying at the River of Life Farms, on the banks of the North Fork of the White River, one of the premier trout fishing rivers in the country. We arrived at camp to learn that good buddy Bill Cooper had killed a bird that morning, his ninety-ninth bird.

Unbelievable.

Along with Tim, Ray, and Bill, we shared camp with a few others. Jon Sabati of Holo Holo Hawaii hunts, Mark Strand of Midwest Outdoors, and Ryan Miloshewski of the Conservation Federation of Missouri and  Mahoney Outdoors. All of this was made possible by Chance and Joe Hollingshad of Devil’s Backbone Wilderness Outfitters, a true hunting outfitter that demands perseverance, patience, and resilience.

Over the next 3 days, we’ll be talking about one aspect or another of the most memorable turkey trip I’ve ever been on. Laughs, friends, and close encounters abound in this long weekend of chasing some of the most challenging birds in the most challenging of conditions.

 

First Fish of Spring: Part 2

In part one, we left you at the pool with two schools of trout, and we were headed to old stomping grounds. By old, I mean I’ve been there a total of twice, and Jake has to show me the pools.

We started a bit further upstream than the time before, and Jake started off hot with a great fish. It struck hard from a deep pool on a brown woolly bugger, which would turn out to be the color of the run. I went fishless for the longest while, watching as Jake hooked into fish after fish in the short span of an hour.

After a while I couldn’t take it anymore. I broke down and traded out my anchor fly for a brown dubbed, gold ribbed midge. Within a couple of casts, I had a not-so subtle explosion on my dry fly. It had nothing to do with the fly change, but it gave me confidence to keep fishing the run.

That confidence paid off, and minutes later I set into a very nice trout. I did what I could to grab a picture, but holding the phone, net, fish, and rod proved too much to handle. The pictures generally aren’t that high on my list, but I would bet my fly rod on the fact that it was the same fish Jake had caught only a few casts prior.

We fished in tandem down the stream, Jake leading the way and catching fish as he went. I’d follow behind, only a few feet back but catching completely different fish. We worked this way for a while, until I stopped to try my hand at some hungry fish. Jake continued on, and after disappointingly getting skunked by the pool of trout, I moved as well. On my move, my fly drifted into a shallow riffle that seemingly held no fish. Then out of the shadowy, orange colored gravel, a fish took a false strike at the dry fly. I had a feeling. I was going to land this fish.

I positioned myself beside the riffle. Two false casts, a mend, and the fish made a move towards my flies again. It took a few tries, but each one the fish would inch closer to the fly and farther out from the stick it rested under. On the fifth cast, he finally committed. The fight wasn’t long, but it was perfect. From sighting the fish to the set and net, maybe 3 minutes had passed. The fish was beautiful, even more than I could imagine after seeing it in the water. It had a light, rust colored dorsal and a delicate pink side and belly. Splattered with leopard spots, the icing on the cake was the white-tipped pelvic fins. By far the prettiest fish of the day, and unless I find a unicorn, it may win fish of the year.

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We finished out the day at the end of the run. If you follow me on instagram, you can see part of the area we fished. Under a certain log, I called my shot and said to Jake, “If I can put my fly next to this log, I bet I get one.”

Three casts, and two fish later, I proved my point. I didn’t say it too loud or proud, Jake hadn’t caught a fish for the last half hour. He had lost his last brown midge, and mine was holding strong. In his defense, he had caught so many fish on that midge that the thread was unraveling and the bead was chipped. It was time to donate one to the river gods. Before we left for the day, I told Jake I wanted one more swing next to the log where I had caught back-to-back fish.

As luck would have it, I wouldn’t even get to the log.

All day, I had fished the same basic rig. Griffith’s Gnat dry, double midge dropper. I’d had a couple on the dry fly, but the last fish was the greatest. It wasn’t the biggest fish, but it made a sound like a breaching whale.

“On the dry!”

Jake looked over, and I walked to hand him the camera. The two weight rod doubled over, the fish finally relented and came to the net. I couldn’t have asked for a better fish to end the first fishing trip of spring.

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